HL Deb 15 February 1867 vol 185 cc371-7

asked the Under Secretary for the Home Department to explain the reply given by the Home Office to the Mayor of Chester in answer to his request for information as to the capacity of Volunteers to act in their military capacity under the direction of the civil authorities. The reply given was that the Volunteers could not be called out in their military capacity to aid in the preservation of the public peace, but that in case of emergency the Volunteers might be called out as special constables, and, in case of emergency, would be justified in using their arms. That might be the law; but, if so, he ventured to think it a state of law very much to be deprecated, and he asked whether the Government had under their consideration any proposal to amend it so as to enable the Volunteers to act, like the yeomanry, in their military capacity, if called upon? The civil authorities should know whether or not they had the power to call out the Volunteers to act with them. If the telegraphic wires had been cut, the civil authorities at Chester might have been placed in considerable difficulty before receiving instructions from the Home Office. Outrages might arise in many parts of the country, and therefore he thought the civil authorities ought to be informed as to the duties of the Volunteers. He hoped that if it should be necessary an Order in Council would be made or a short Act passed to enable the civil authorities to call out the Volunteers. He felt that the Volunteers were as amenable to discipline as most troops of the line, and if they were to use their arms at all, it should be under the command of their officers, and they should not be left to their own guidance to act in any way they might think proper in quelling a riot.


The answer I have to give is this. The only occasion on which the Volunteer Corps can by law be called out for military service is in case of actual or apprehended invasion of any part of the coasts of the United Kingdom. Except in that case, therefore, they cannot be called out in their military character. But as civilians acting as special constables they may be called upon to aid the civil power in quelling disturbances, and in cases of emergency there would be no objection to their using their arms, as I suppose anybody else would be justified in using arms under similar circumstances. The Government at present has no intention of proposing a Bill for altering the law in this respect.


inquired whether the Volunteers acting as special constables could move as an embodied force under their officers?


It appears to me that the reply of the noble Earl (the Earl of Belmore) has placed this question in an unsatisfactory position. In the Volunteer Act of 1863, as introduced by Lord Palmerston's Government, there was a clause founded upon the then, existing law as contained in the original Volunteer and Yeomanry Act, by which power was given to lords-lieutenant to call out Volunteer Corps in aid of the civil power with the sanction of the Secretary of State. That clause was struck out in the House of Commons; and, as the law now stands, there is no power to employ Volunteer Corps for the suppression of civil disturbances. It is quite true, as stated by the noble Earl, that Volunteers, like any other of Her Majesty's subjects, may be sworn in as special constables, and may act in the same way as any other special constables; but to go beyond this and to issue to them their Government arms and ammunition would raise a new question, which would, as it seems to me, require serious consideration. I will not express a positive opinion upon the subject at this moment; but it is clearly one upon which no doubt ought to exist, and I trust that the Government will re-consider the matter, and will take steps to remove the doubts, in which it is now involved, in consequence of the novel view which appears to be taken of it by the Home Department.


I wish to ask whether, in striking out the clause alluded to, it was not the intention of the other House to relieve the Volunteers from the obligation of serving except in case of invasion; and whether it is not lawful for the civil powers to call upon the Volunteers to quell an insurrection, although it is equally lawful for the Volunteers to decline to respond to the call, and indeed any call except in case of actual invasion by a foreign Power. I am persuaded that the moment there was any real danger apprehended from local disturbance the Volunteers would willingly respond to the call of the civil power; and I quite agree with the proposition of the noble Lord who introduced the subject, that if they come at all, with arms in their hands, they should come as an organized body, and with officers commanding them, and not as individuals. But this is, I think, a most objectionable mode of viewing the matter. It is highly desirable to know whether the lords-lieutenant of counties would be justified in calling on officers of Volunteers to bring out their corps, with the understanding that it is not obligatory on the men to attend.


did not wish to lay down the law, but he would tell their Lordships what occurred in 1830, under circumstances similar to those of the present time. In 1830 there were very serious riots in the South of England, especially in his own neighbourhood, where farmhouses and ricks were burned, and where, indeed, there was a sort of rebellion. There were no troops whatever at hand, and special constables were sworn in to the number of many hundreds, and each was allowed to arm himself as he chose; some had guns, some swords, and some pistols. They were a most motley set, but they used their weapons effectu- ally, and the riots were suppressed, and these proceedings were held to be legal.


said, he apprehended that there was nothing whatever in the circumstance of a man becoming a Volunteer to deprive him of any right that he had as a civilian, or to relieve him from any obligation he was under as such; and in cases in which the magistrates might call upon other civilians to preserve the Queen's peace they might also call upon Volunteers. And in every case in which civilians might use arms, Volunteers might also use them. He could hardly conceive that such a body of men as the Volunteers, if called out to suppress a riot, were not to avail themselves of their organization and act in the most efficient manner possible.


said, that the whole matter turned on the degree of emergency—for instance, the Volunteers would not be justified in assembling in arms to repress any common disturbance—while in extreme cases they would be justified in doing so.


said, if the Volunteers were called out as civilians to assist in maintaining the peace, their arms would be in the depots, and could not be taken from thence except by the order of the officer commanding. He thought that the notion that the Volunteers could go to take their arms otherwise than in accordance with the order of their officers would be likely to lead to very dangerous disturbances. On the other hand, if the officers were to order them to do so, they might be acting contrary to law. He thought, also, that the Volunteers ought to be kept only for the purpose for which they were embodied as Volunteers, and he would rather in an emergency of the same sort see the kind of force that had been referred to as acting in 1830, than that individual Volunteers should, at their instance, take their arms from the depôts. It ought not to be sanctioned that they might use the arms which had been furnished by the Government for any other purpose than to combat the enemies of the country. Nothing could be more dreadful in his opinion than to see one class set against another, as would be the case if Volunteers were called upon to suppress a revolt on the part of their every-day companions. With the military the case was different; they lived at a distance, and, in most cases, would be quite strangers in the town to which they were called.


recollected that when, in 1830, the civil force was marching upon a body of rioters they met the under sheriff, who gave them the authority of the High Sheriff for what they were doing; and he apprehended that it would be within the power of the High Sheriff to authorize any body of Volunteers to act as a posse comitatûs in case of emergency.


said, he thought that the clause which the Commons had struck out was very wisely expunged. Many of their Lordships would remember that the use of the Yeomanry regiments in quelling riots in past times had made that force very unpopular in large towns. It might be very necessary that such a useful force as Volunteers should exist and lend their aid in quelling riots; but he should be very sorry if they obtained the same amount of unpopularity as the Yeomanry formerly did. This feeling was no doubt in some cases owing to petty jealousies existing between one class and another, but it was also owing to the recollection of the employment of the Yeomanry in former days. At this time the Volunteers were popular with all classes. He thought the Volunteers should not be called upon in their military capacity except for the purpose of preventing foreign invasion. There certainly might be circumstances in which the force might be required to act for the protection of the country, but he hoped they would not be employed to quell mere riots, nor to act as a body at all, but that they would act, if at all, as special constables simply.


was of opinion that there was a great difference between the employment of the Yeomanry and the Volunteers; because, whenever the Yeomanry were called out, the men were paid for their services, and the Mutiny Act was read, while the Volunteers were, of course, subject to no such, regulations.


My Lords, it is of the greatest possible importance to the interests of the country that this subject should be clearly understood. The military authorities have been, and are at this moment, placed in great difficulty, because they do not know exactly how they are situated. I cannot conceive any situation of greater complexity than that of the officer stationed the other day at Chester with his sixty men. He was not, of course, aware what was going to happen, and he did not know upon what assistance he could rely. The captain in command was not a local authority, and the Mayor was not able to decide how he should act. I should, therefore, like to know what the captain was to do in the emergency. Of course, as a military man, he would have been glad to have received all the assistance the Volunteers could have afforded him; but in doing so he might have committed an illegal act, have made himself amenable to the laws of his country, and might possibly have been tried for his life, I think, therefore, this question ought to be cleared from every shadow of ambiguity, and that the authorities should distinctly understand how they are to act with regard to the Volunteers should occasion require. I beg your Lordships to understand that I give no opinion upon the question of law; but it ought to be most clearly understood, and the clearest instructions ought to be given, not only to the lords-lieutenant of counties and the civil authorities, but also to those in command of the military, so that it may be clearly defined whether the Volunteers are in the position of mere special constables or are permitted to take arms in their hands. We have been told that they might use any arms which they might happen to possess; but even in that case the Government weapons would be chiefly employed, because great numbers of our Volunteers keep their arms at home. My noble Friend has referred to the circumstances of 1830, but it should be remembered that there were no Volunteers at that time. If the Volunteers are allowed to arm themselves, the result of course will be that they will make use of the best weapon in their possession, and will employ the public arms and ammunition; but it is doubtful whether or not they would be justified in using them. For my own part, I have very great doubts about it. At all events, it is a question which ought not to be left in this ambiguous position, and I therefore hope to Bee some regulations laid down in which the question will be dealt with, and the position of the Volunteers and the power of the civil and military authorities most clearly defined.


My Lords, I am inclined to agree with the illustrious Duke, that there ought to be a clear understanding upon the subject, and I will take care that that shall be the case as far as the Government can deal with it. I may, perhaps, also say that I had not the slightest doubt about the matter. If a magistrate had come to me to ask me to arm the Volunteers under my command with the Government arms I should, undoubtedly, have refused to do so. The Act is as clear as anything can possibly be upon the point, and I always believed the Volunteers understood what their duties were under such circumstances. By becoming Volunteers they do not abdicate their rights or duties as citizens, and are liable to be sworn in as special constables, and when so sworn in would naturally be armed as special constables usually are armed. And I do not believe that there is any confusion upon the subject in the country. I never heard any Volunteer officer express a doubt upon it, and I, as a Volunteer officer, should refuse to give up the Government arms at the request of a magistrate.


I may point out that the question has arisen because the Mayor of Chester, the civil authority on the spot, did not know what to do, and telegraphed for instructions.


said, that at all events it was necessary that all ambiguity should be removed, for it was clear that at present no proper understanding existed on the subject.


hoped that in case such a state of things as had taken place at Chester recurred some power would be reserved to the civil authorities to use the arms lodged in the Volunteer depot. Such a thing ought not, of course, to be done, except in great emergency; but when that emergency did occur there ought to be some power to turn to account the available resources of the country.


rose to order. There was no Question before their Lordships.


observed, that 1,500 strangers had been assembled at Chester, presumably to commit high treason, but not a single arrest had been made. He did not blame the authorities for this, but he thought the circumstance suggested that there was some danger of extreme leniency in dealing with political crimes; indeed, in Ireland political crime had almost ceased to be regarded as crime. The leniency shown to political offenders had made it appear that high treason was about the safest thing in the world to indulge in; in fact, it required more courage to rob a henroost than to break into one of the Royal castles.